On a blustery Sunday during Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books, local thriller author J.T. Ellison sits down to talk about Dr. Samantha Owens, the heroine in her new series about a medical examiner with a painful past. Owens will be familiar to Ellison’s many fans. She’s the best friend of homicide lieutenant Taylor Jackson, the star of Ellison’s seven previous books. Sam was even a point-of-view character in 2011’s Where All the Dead Lie, which was nominated for a RITA Award for Best Romantic Suspense.
Before Ellison could start a new series about the intelligent and intense medical examiner, though, she had to figure out a single crucial detail: She had to kill off Sam’s husband and two kids. (When the author invented Sam as a character in the Taylor Jackson books, she didn’t know that the medical examiner would eventually get her own series.)
“I fought against that,” says Ellison, who describes Sam as “the woman I’d want to take care of me.” (“Taylor is the chick I’d want to go get a drink with,” she quips.) But she wanted a clean break for Sam as she stepped forward as a main character. Ultimately, Ellison did not want her encumbered with a family. She wanted Sam to be broken at the beginning of A Deeper Darkness, the first book in the series, in order for her to be able to grow and develop as a character.
When the novel starts, we find out that Sam’s husband and children died in Nashville’s flood of May 2010, an event that was personal to Ellison, as she and her husband live in the city’s Bellevue neighborhood, which was majorly affected by the rising waters. The flood has terrible repercussions for Sam, who becomes convinced that her family members’ deaths were all her fault, and she develops Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in her grieving.
At the beginning of A Deeper Darkness, Sam is in this guilt-ridden emotional state when she gets a call from an ex-boyfriend’s mother in Washington, D.C. Eddie Donovan, her former love, has been murdered. His mom would like for Sam to perform a second autopsy, and she reluctantly agrees. Thanks to her astute observation in the D.C. morgue, it becomes obvious that Eddie’s death was not merely the result of a random hit-and-run. Sam gets drawn into a D.C. detective’s investigation of the murder, which blossoms into an investigation of several different murders of former military men, all members of Eddie’s Company in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Are the deaths connected?
If one of Ellison’s goals is to accurately portray the lives of medical examiners or homicide lieutenants, she also wants to raise awareness of issues that are important to her.
Sam’s search races across the nation’s capital and even to a creepy off-the-grid cabin. Fans of the medical thriller genre will relish this fast-paced and emotional read, which is bolstered by Ellison’s thorough research.
For her Taylor Jackson books, Ellison went on ride-alongs with the Metro Nashville Police Department in order to make her scenes as real as possible. For A Deeper Darkness, she consulted with both soldiers and a medical examiner—and she even did autopsies on four bodies at a facility in Nashville. (When prodded to share the most surprising thing about the process, she says: “That I didn’t pass out!”)
At the book festival, Ellison jumps up from her chair to demonstrate how far she was from the bodies when she walked into the morgue—about 10 or so feet. But by the end of that day, she says, “I had my head in a chest cavity.” The author describes this very hands-on research trip as a “spiritual experience,” especially after it became so obvious that “we’re all exactly alike inside.”
If one of Ellison’s goals as an author is to accurately portray the lives of medical examiners or homicide lieutenants, she also wants to raise awareness of issues that are important to her. In the case of A Deeper Darkness, that would be the problem of fratricide and rape in the U.S. military. Instances of both horrific events are integral to the novel’s plot, and the book is dedicated to David H. Sharrett II, a real-life Private First Class who was killed in Iraq in 2008 as a victim of friendly fire. He was the son of Ellison’s favorite teacher in high school.
A Deeper Darkness is, indeed, a very dark book, but Edge of Black—its follow-up, which comes out in November 2012—has “lots of humor.” Ellison says that the “Sam books” are funnier than the “Taylor books,” and this second installment is gentler than A Deeper Darkness. Luckily for fans, the author recently signed a contract to write three more books in the series, so there will be much more of Dr. Samantha Owens to look forward to. Next year, Ellison’s fans can anticipate her new collaboration with best-selling romantic suspense author Catherine Coulter, with whom she is writing a series of thrillers called “A Brit in the FBI.” The first book in the series, Jewel of the Lion, is currently slated to come out in late summer of 2013.
When asked what scenes she looks forward to writing the most in her books, Ellison says without hesitating, “You want every scene you write to be something you look forward to.” Otherwise, she explains, readers won’t want to read them. And in fact, readers will happily devour Sam’s new series. A story of hope—with breakneck chase scenes, to boot—it is an exciting introduction to a new heroine of the forensic thriller genre.